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Raynella Dossett Leath

Other Female Murder Exonerees
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On the morning of March 13, 2003, 57-year-old David Leath was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in the bedroom of his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. A handgun was found next to his right hand.

Leath’s body was discovered by his 54-year-old wife, Raynella Dossett Leath, who called 911, screaming hysterically that her husband had shot himself.

Four days later, police began investigating the death as a homicide, primarily because the .38-caliber revolver had been fired three times. One bullet struck the wall. Another pierced the mattress. The third struck Leath in his forehead. Knox County deputy medical examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan performed an autopsy the day after the death, and determined the manner of death was homicide. At the time of this determination, the medical examiner did not have any of Leath’s medical records nor had she spoken with any of Leath’s treating physicians.

Gunshot residue was found on Leath’s hands. No gunshot residue was found on Dossett Leath, nor did any other physical evidence connect her to her husband’s death.

Leath was Dossett Leath’s second husband and the second to die under violent circumstances. Her first husband, Ed Dossett, had been the Knox County District Attorney General, as county prosecutors are titled in Tennessee. In 1992, Dossett was suffering from terminal cancer when he was trampled by cattle and died.

In 1996, Dossett Leath was charged with firing several shots at Steve Walker. Dossett Leath said Walker was snooping around her farm and she shot into the ground to scare him off. Walker claimed she fired directly at him. Years earlier, Walker’s wife, who was a prosecutor in Ed Dossett’s office, had an affair with Dossett. At the time of the incident with Dossett Leath, Walker’s wife had revealed to him that their child was actually fathered by Dossett, not Walker, and Walker was divorcing her. Dossett Leath was charged with attempted murder and pled guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault. She was sentenced to six years of supervision with no jail time and the case was expunged.

The Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols recused the office from investigating Leath’s death because Nichols had succeeded Dossett Leath’s first husband as head of the office after his death.

In March 2006, although the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said they were still investigating Leath’s death as a homicide, no charges had been filed. Cynthia Wilkerson, Leath’s daughter from his previous marriage, filed a civil lawsuit against Dossett Leath claiming that either she killed Leath or that she hired someone to kill him. The lawsuit was an attempt to cut Dossett Leath out of any of the inheritance from her husband’s death.

Eight months later, in November 2006, Dossett Leath was charged with first-degree murder of her second husband. Not long after, authorities began re-investing the cattle-trampling death of her first husband. Nearly two years later, in August 2008, Dossett Leath was charged with murdering her first husband. Mileusnic-Polchan, the medical examiner, had reviewed the toxicology report from Ed Dossett’s autopsy and concluded he died from an overdose of morphine, not from a cattle stampede. At the time of his death, Dossett was taking morphine to ease the pain of his cancer, and Mileusnic-Polchan concluded there was twice the normal dosage in his bloodstream and the injuries from the cattle hooves were non-fatal.

In March 2009, Dossett Leath went to trial in Knox County Circuit Court on the charge of murdering David Leath. A mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

She went to trial a second time in January 2010. Mileusnic-Polchan testified that Leath was shot once in the forehead above his left eye, in which he was blind. The shot was fired from 12 to 14 inches away, she testified.

Mileusnic-Polchan told the jury that toxicology testing showed a mixture of four medications in his system that left him too weak to get out of bed. She concluded that Leath was unable to kill himself or defend himself against someone intent on shooting him.

“It was impossible for Mr. Leath to have shot himself,” Mileusnic-Polchan testified. “Mr. Leath was incapacitated.” Mileusnic-Polchan said she was unable to determine a precise time of death, but estimated that Leath died sometime after 6 a.m. on the day his body was discovered.

The lead police investigator, Knox County Sheriff’s Sgt. Perry Moyers, testified that there were no fingerprints found on the gun—which he concluded was unlikely if Leath committed suicide.

Moyers also told the jury that Leath’s body appeared to have been “tucked” into the bed where he was found. In addition, the clothes dryer in the house was running when officers arrived at the scene—suggesting that Dossett Leath had changed clothes after the shooting.

The jury also heard some entries from Dossett-Leath’s calendar for the two months prior to her husband’s death, including comments such as “Dave paranoid, bad argument,” “Dave hateful,” “Dave in bed all day,” and “I’m tired of it.”

The defense presented evidence that on the day of Leath’s death, Dossett Leath’s youngest daughter left for high school at 8:20 a.m. Dossett Leath and her husband watched televangelist Joyce Meyer on television together. She then made him breakfast and put clothes in the dryer before she left home.

Dossett Leath called Wilkerson at 9:50 a.m. to report that she was visiting David Leath’s mother at Parkwest Medical Center, and she was concerned that Leath may have gone to the gym without eating his breakfast. The defense presented evidence from hospital personnel confirming that Dossett Leath was at the hospital at that time.

Not long after, Dossett Leath took medicine to Karns High School because her daughter called to report she was ill. Records at the high school confirmed that Dossett Leath stopped there to deliver the medicine and left at 10:45 a.m. She stopped to talk to a neighbor after she parked in her driveway before entering her house to discover Leath’s body. Her call to 911 came at 11:23 a.m.

The prosecution contended that Dossett Leath drugged her husband the night before, shot him after her daughter left for high school, and then positioned the gun on the bed to make it appear to have been a suicide. Then, according to the prosecution, Dossett Leath spent the rest of the morning manufacturing an alibi.

On January 25, 2010, after two days of deliberation, the jury convicted Dossett Leath of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison. The prosecution then dismissed the charge of murdering her first husband.

A motion for new trial was denied, and in 2013, her appeal of her conviction was denied. In July 2015, Dossett Leath, who was represented by new lawyers Joshua Hedrick and Rebecca LeGrand, filed a petition for post-conviction relief seeking a new trial.

The petition claimed that medical records that were not introduced at the trial showed that Leath had been diagnosed with dementia in 2002. Although he had been prescribed medications, his condition was worsening. A month before his death, his physician noted in the records that Leath was suffering from mood changes, a failing memory, and feelings of frustration and being demoralized.

The petition noted that after the conviction, Steve Robinson, a former Sheriff’s deputy, told a defense investigator that when he arrived at Leath’s home after the body was discovered, he saw a police officer emerge from the home carrying the gun that killed Leath. Another officer followed and said the weapon had been “secured.” This occurred prior to the arrival of crime scene technicians, the officers responsible for photographing the scene. Robinson repeated that account two more times and then gave a sworn affidavit. The statement called into question the prosecution claim at trial that the gun had been placed on the bed in a way that looked staged. The petition noted, however, that Robinson later recanted his statement, although he never provided “a credible explanation for why his memory changed.”

However, the petition claimed that Robinson’s original account had been confirmed by another witness, Randall Brookshire, a paramedic who was one of the first responders on the scene. Brookshire gave a sworn statement that before any crime scene technicians were on the scene, he saw an officer holding a revolver in his hand and heard another officer say that the weapon had been secured.

The defense also presented evidence from Dr. Gregory Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky, who examined Mileusnic-Polchan’s reports of Leath’s autopsy and the toxicology results. Davis said that the drugs found in Leath’s bloodstream were “at levels within the therapeutic range,” contrary to Mileusnic-Polchan’s assertion that Leath was incapacitated by the drugs he had ingested.

“This evidence shows that Mr. Leath could not have been secretly drugged the night before his death,” the petition said. “The evidence also shows that Mr. Leath would not have been seriously incapacitated by the drugs in his system at the time of his death.”

The petition also said that the trial judge, Richard Baumgartner, had been under the influence of pain-killers during the trial, and that he had denied the defense motion for a new trial when he knew he was under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. Baumgartner stepped down from the bench on January 28, 2011, the same day he denied Dossett Leath’s motion for a new trial. He was later convicted on state and federal charges relating to his acquisition and addiction to OxyContin, a powerful painkiller. The petition noted that from December 30, 2009 to January 25, 2010—during the time of Dossett Leath’s second trial—Judge Baumgartner was prescribed at least 150 OxyContin pills by a single physician. This was at a time when he was getting more of the same pills from dealers and sometimes even from courthouse staff.

In May 2016, Senior Judge Paul Summers granted Dossett Leath a new trial on the ground that Judge Baumgartner was impaired during her trial. “The system failed,” the judge declared as he ruled that Baumgartner was so high and obsessed with getting the painkillers that Dossett Leath was deprived of a constitutionally fair trial. Dossett Leath then was released on bond.

Dossett Leath went to trial a third time in May 2017. The prosecution presented evidence to show that Leath was murdered—including a blood spatter expert who testified that Leath was not lying in the bed, but rather in a raised or sitting position when he was shot.

The defense presented the medical evidence to show that Leath had in fact committed suicide.

On May 10, 2017, after the prosecution and defense had completed presenting their evidence, but before the jury began to deliberate, Judge Summers granted a defense motion for a judgment of acquittal.

“The record taken as a whole does not support a finding of sufficient evidence,” Summers declared. “The state has failed to meet its burden.”

Summers found that that even if Leath did not commit suicide, there was no evidence that Dossett Leath was in the home when the three shots were fired. There was no motive and the prosecution “has not established a time of death beyond a general time (frame),” Summers said. “Mrs. (Dossett) Leath's whereabouts that morning were established by the proof."

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/2/2017
State:Tennessee
County:Knox
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2003
Convicted:2010
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:54
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No